Divine interventions, they say!
- Pratima Sagar, Hyderabad, Feb 7, 2012
e-mail: pratima_sagar@yahoo.com

WHY THIS madness about seeking the supernatural?
Spirituality mystifies. Science demystifies.
And how?
Let’s glance through the world of art, what its people have to say…

Natya Darshan Seminar this season takes us through a tour of mystic saint poets - as those Mad and Divine Women, see their works getting decoded into dance! A Dionysian dance drunk in divinity… a madness for the mystical mate… when chimera and reality melt into a silvery stream, what matters is the prism called mind and its flow of creative energy in psychedelic shimmers.

Rejoice in it, Anita, for reimagining the imageries of those saint poets who suddenly don’t seem to be relics any more! I see them in people who seek. I saw them in you; I see them everywhere, where the mind's eye meets the nebulas… poetry, talk, music and dance, time to decipher and celebrate- madness indeed!

“We explore how the divine is yearned for and attained by these figures often judged by their family and society as `mad’. What is this madness that passionately craves the divine? Why is that when men express such feelings that they are called `realized’ and women are called `mad’? In a patriarchal society, are women quicker to endorse these archetypes... is such phenomenon still visible in our midst?” questions galore… Convenor, Anita Ratnam fuels the fire in the bellies of artists, poets, scholars, cultural commentators and connoisseurs gathered from across the world for the Kartik Fine Arts’ annual three days of “Madras, Mallipoo, Mylapore, Margazhi and Madness”!  Meaningful, I must say!!!
“The word `mad’ is now no longer a pejorative adjective. It is a scientifically proven premise for the true artist; modern neurology has found enough evidence in the mass of jelly that is our brain to give credence to that old adage, `madmen and artists are singularly alike’.  As for `divine’ the jury is out on that one… divinity and madness is beyond gender, for it is all about the search for the supreme”, pitches Shanta Serbjeet Singh in her keynote address - of the facts of `madness’  whose heart  throbs with creative vibes.

The Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan did seem to throb with stimulated sessions in the day and inspired performances in the evenings- even as, many a saint poetess rode up to life telling timeless tales of love, devotional fervor and yes, their evolutions and emancipations! While crisscrossing through these creative activities, I make a humble sojourn to encapsulate the spirit, the all pervading spirit of the ascetic poetess in subject, and present to my readers - a collage of concepts where dance becomes an expression of literature and music- an embryonic effect of madness and divinity. Connecting the dots in random, I have a reason to pencil in a picture. A picture collectively created by the speakers and artists in performance.

 Visual vocabulary, to begin with. 

Mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik in his audio visual talk titled “Myth of the Mad Mystical Women” on Day 1 of the symposium, sets into a comparative imagery of goddesses and the iconic heroines of the Puranas – with their mirror images reflecting in the saint poetesses.  If goddess Kali, the terrifying and liberated resonates in the unadorned saint Telugu poetess Akka Mahadevi, the luxuriant Lakshmi seems to reveal in the bejeweled Tamil poetess Andal. Both of whom (saint poetesses) attained divinity in their respective unbound and bound demeanors. Interestingly, Devdutt extends his conversation on allegorical aspects of hairpins which bound Sita’s and Draupadi’s hair.  Sita undid her hair to give her hairpin to Hanuman, foreshadowing Rama’s war with Ravana. While Draupadi’s hair, was rinsed by the antagonist Duryodhana’s blood and bound by his innards, an indication of the end of the bloody battle of Kurukshetra!

Well, the speaker drew such similes from these mythological women whose spirit of passion and perseverance seems to pulsate in the medieval poetesses in focus- in some way or the other.

Of course, the literature reveals it all.  Archana Venkatesan, Prof. of Comparative Literature and Religious Studies, University of California, reads a paper titled “Legends of the Goddess: Andal stories in the Srivaishnava traditions”. The author of ‘The Secret Garland: Translations of Andal’s Tiruppavai,’ Archana interprets the original transcripts, reinterprets the later adaptations of the same, and explores on the evolution of the story as it circulates in both textual and oral sources.

With all the technical details in place like genre, style and language choice, the speaker opens the Pandora’s Box of prose poetry and more.

And here, I could connect the dot to the thoughts of a young literary scholar and theatre artist Akhila Ramnarayan whose paper titled “Temporal transgressions: Going global with bhakti” presented on Day 2, took us away from the mythical tales to traverse across India’s borders where bhakti seemed to breathe in a global backdrop. She endeavors to trace the poetry of female mystics of medieval India which in a way prepared her to read contemporary women poets. Akhila refers to the poetry of Allison Adelle Hedge Coke and Haunani-Kay Trask, both of whom bring into play indigenous mysticism as a means of political conflict of colonization, and as reclamation of nativity, ethnicity and identity. She furthers her talk by introducing us to these Hawaii female poets- the modern `first nation’ writers, in a process of providing viable entry point for cross-cultural literary comparison encompassing different locations and time phases.

Certainly, that was a fleeting thought. But for the discerning, it does leave a scope to expand.

Talking of comparisons from overseas, Nirupama Vaidhyanathan, dance researcher and writer from California, takes on a topic titled “Meerabai and St. Teresa of Avila: Lives in parallel worlds” on Day 3. These medieval saint poetesses who lived in the same time in India and Spain correspondingly, renounced material comforts and embraced lives of piety for which they were tested constantly because of the patriarchal rigidity that surrounded them. Nirupama draws parallels based on their writings, their innermost spiritual journeys undertaken amidst overpowering odds. If the Spanish Catholic saint’s literary works are preserved as a guide for Catholics worldwide, the eternal lover of Krishna continues to live in her songs passed down through an oral tradition.

And don’t we love to read them or listen to their lore once and again? On a lighter vein, I say, well-behaved women never make history!

Making history they say… some known and lesser known. Madhavi Raghav Narsalay, Prof. of Sanskrit, University of Mumbai unearths some somber stories in her paper “Institutionalizing identity through divinity: Female saint poetesses of Maharashtra” on Day 2. The life histories of Mahadaisa, Janabai and Venabai reveal their exceptional spirit that rose above the societal norms of widowhood, casteism and chauvinism to realize their lord- as they sang and danced rapturously in His praise.

Poems- poignant and pure… an intense spiritual call- at once passionate and cerebral…

Experience these poems through Priya Sarukkai Chabria, herself a poet and translator- and realize their (saint poetesses) consonance with the universe. In her presentation, “Aandaal: The Autobiography of a Goddess”, Priya recited excerpts from her poetic trans-creations of the 8th century Tamil mystic poet, and Vasuda sang those emotive yet ornate Pasurams of Andal. Priya, further interprets these encrusted verses complete with metaphorical expressions, and illustrates the young poetess’ obsession to bring into play her god Narayana Nampi into physical form simply leads her(self) to coalesce with the celestial by attaining godhood! Centuries later, she is continued to be worshiped in her temples and celebrated through her songs, for she ripens as the goddess of love. 

Love and devotion correspond when these saint poetesses bundled up their whole existence for the beloved almighty. Well, love, is thy religion!

“Mah Laqa Bai and Meerabai between Hinduism and Islam”, their source of reaching was singing songs of love; they composed as they soared towards divinity, while their sonatas continue to be hummed through the times. Closer to our times, there lived a courtesan in the Deccani highlands who composed ghazals, poetry inflected by Sufi images of madness in love. Scott Kugle, scholar of Islamic culture and Religious Studies and Professor at Emory University, and Pallabi Chakravorty, scholar of visual Anthropology, Professor at Swarthmore College, on Day 3 of the symposium traced the dancing foot prints of Mah Laqa Bai, a Shiite Muslim woman who seemed to be inspired from the roving bhakti musicians from Rajasthan, where Meerabai once lived.

Well, don’t they still live amidst us?

 Clad in Sunset hues with matted locks coiled in a chignon, an ascetic named Uma, a Swedish Naga Sadhvi, talks of her decades of experience in the Shaivaite sect. Documentary filmmaker, Madhureeta Anand who tracked down such women seeking solace in the middle of dusty, sandy, smoky environs, introduces Uma- in a session on modern-day mystic women.  “Hearts in ecstasy: A presentation of images and words about Sadhavis”, tells stories of some women who are drawn to where they are today… a life gravitated towards the mysterious almighty!

Who? Male deity?!

Ketu Katrak, Prof. of Drama, University of California, directs us to these fiercely independent mystic saint poetesses’ who in Nature yearned for a male god! “In the Indian aesthetic the divine is expressed via the corporeal and sensual. The sensual and spiritual are not separate…”, Ketu, summarizes   in her closing plenary: “Creative representations of `Madness’ accessing the Divine”. Madness…? Naa, to be mad, divine and dancing!

Whosoever knoweth the power of the dance, dwelleth in God
- Rumi

Egyptian goddess Isis clings to Osiris’s dead body while Kali dances in a frenzied state over Shiva’s corpse… dancing in madness and dancing for the divine!
I saw dancers personifying themselves as the saint poetesses, who in turn measured themselves on par with the divine consorts! I am tempted to recapitulate those spirited performances of Natya Darshan- Mad and Divine Women, in a festoon and flash their images to my readers as they appeared and disappeared leaving their magical moves in my mind!

Andal, Meera, Jana, Akka, Lalla and many more, as Bharatanatyam dancer Vidhya Subramanian sketches images of these poetesses in a succinct choreography on Day 1, titled “Ojas- with that spiritual energy I yearn”, the stage got set for inspired dance creations in a windfall!

Whirlwind in fact- with chipplas and cymbals held in hands playing to the rhythms, dialogue and song in full throated drive, anklet bells in bunches quivering in musical cadences… over six sprightly Kathakaar performers of Lasya Centre for Dance, Mumbai, headed by Rajashree Shirke brought into a stirring action, the story of Sant Kanhopatra, a Maharashtrian saint poetess on Day 2. At once sensitive and sad, uprising and unshackling, the dancer, choreographer Rajashree in a nutshell not just animates the anecdote of Kanhopatra, but also gestures at those women in search… whose physical pathos transcend towards metaphysical powers, who fall only to rise for a beloved beyond!

This search starts at a dot, and evolves into a journey… a journey towards a destination to dissolve into divinity, oh so pure and perfect!

Art does have an answer to explain this kakemono of significant forms.

When I saw Bharatanatyam performances of Narthaki Nataraj, Zakir Hussain and Meenakshi Chitharanjan on successive evenings, I could literally count their dedicated years of practice in dance. They too had stories to tell, but what I saw was a technical prowess on stage, on a passage towards attainment. If I heard someone in the audience praise Meenakshi’s perfection in jathis, those abstract dance sequences in complicated measures, I could comprehend the truth in Zakir’s recital, his personification of a devotee in dance. While everyone knows Narthaki’s painstaking evolution as a dancer par distinction.

A coiled perspective of developing scenes… here is the onset of a soul in search…

Narthaki religiously choreographed a series of poetic compositions of Avvayars belonging to different times, and whose compositions were strung with similar cord of devotion and an obsessive adoration. With sanchari bhavas or dramatized narratives, she theoretically presented “Sutta Pazham” hitherto untold stories of divine mad- nesses and devout mates- of the concepts of Madhura Bhakti…

Of Jeevaatmas and Paramaatma... Meenakshi Chitharanjan, in the established aesthetics of Bharatanatyam, with pure and expressional dance performed to select compositions of Saint Thirunavakkarasar, titled “the lord, my lover”. The devotee as a lover is the female embodiment longing for her lord Siva. The dancer dramatized temple rituals and fanfare processions, the lord and his attributes… finishing off with the devotee surrendering to the supernatural. Well, metrical and formulaic.     
Metaphors of love to further the soul… Zakir, a devoted Bharatanatyam dancer and a devotee of Andal, performed with utmost reverence, grace and sincerity. With select poetry of Andal, he personified her, imagined through her eyes - the Garuda Vahana that carries her lord, and the conch so close to his lips, or the floral garland that she tenderly touches before offering it to her lord, and finally the dream wedding and the majestic elephant processions… Zakir delved into these symbols and messages that Andal draws on to express her love and deep desires. With a refined expressional and pure dance, the artist and Vaishnava scholar said it all – “Vanamaalai- the garland of love.”

I saw this garland of love unwind in the performances of young and restless Mythili Prakash and Sangeeta Isvaran. Both chose Shaivaite concepts of renunciation and revelations. Mythili takes the opportunity for a thorough research and understanding of the radical thoughts of Akka Mahadevi. And audibly, there was scope for Sangeeta to dramatize for becoming Siva’s Sakti!

Time to unveil this luring sport in rapture of energies…

Sangeeta epitomizes Ammaiyar who danced, and danced to become Siva herself! With large rolling eyes and darting eyebrows, Sangeeta steps into the fiery form of Siva that seemed to symbolize the wild and windy yen of His devotee to realize Him… she sings and unshackles... Delving into Ammaiyar’s pungent poetic phrases, Hariprasad sings to match the emotional mayhem which the dancer personifies until she surrenders into the calmness of being Sivam.

Clad in white, Mythili, with stunning stances, emotive expressions and telling grace, weaves the saga of Akka Mahadevi, who ripens to realize her Oneness with Lord Mallikarjuna. As the poems sung by Aditya Prakash lilt across… Mythili rolled out the imageries on stage … “Aikya- in the voice of Akka Mahadevi”- evolving into the divine, uniting into the existence of Siva!

Here, I behold Madhu Nataraj in a rhythm of beauty in the calm of space, and I capture Aditi Mangaldas aligned in her transcendental mystery. As these Kathak dancers teem with their world- idea, I discover this world of silence in a cyclic hour, a splendid centre of infinity’s whirl- the most sensuous time and space of the seeker.  

Amid this spiritual space, suddenly there comes a downward look… as if a sea exploring its own depths...

Melting into the poetry of 3 lesser known women mystics, Madhu establishes Lingamma, Muktayakka and Molige Mahadevi in her choreography “Nirvaya- dissolving in divinity”. The danseuse transforms the stage space into an atmospheric presentation with audio visuals, music, and a dance, so grand, while she herself chooses to be clad in light cottons emblematic of those liberated poets of 12th century who philosophized the monistic Shaivism and simplicity of life. Interestingly Madhu connects her `present’, surrounded by cacophony and crowds with visuals merging into her, and how she emerges out to seek the sacred energies of the triad to create that outer and inner space.  Ramya Reddy’s photo art gave a layered presentation to Madhu’s seamless swirls and stances. 

Swift and suave, Aditi too. She takes the audiences of “Mad and divine women…” to the next level! Clad in black against a black backdrop, the danseuse gently shimmers under the play of light and shade as though emerging out of a night sky like a Dionysian intoxicated in love…she sees her bejeweled beloved and dances like a thunderbolt as though springing from the sparkle of His gems... loug kahe mohe bhattaki! Oh’ Meera aren’t you so magical?!  Another poem, piya ki ankur, seemed like an ardent hunt of soul looking for soul, as Aditi sensuously portrayed the union of spaces - of the physical and metaphysical - titled Zero Moment; she gyrates in frenzy and gingerly furls to bond with the beyond. Music composed by Shuba Mudgal enhanced the mood of madness and magic!

Then comes the grand moment when I saw masters in creation without flaw! If Rama Vaidyanathan sported with god as a mother with her child, Malavika Sarukkai made of stage space, a marvel house of god! Both the Bharatanatyam dancers did carry the magic wand, the mystic fire and the cup of joy!

Drunk in divinity…they moved amidst the grandeur of dreams that they once dreamt!

Malavika comes into being in lyrical dance choreography and passionately paints the colours of poetry. These hues were the very prism of the supreme within. She slips into Andal and almost in a cathartic self, seems to say- find salvation in thy heart itself, of blossoming lotuses - brindavanam within! Malavika’s “Maname Brindavaname” saw the devout audience giving a standing ovation to her signature performance of the evening! For she took them into the world of Andal in a reverie like dance. Flowers as a metaphor for her blossoming love, and drawing mandalas on the floor symbolizing the fiery disc that Vishnu sports, or the thousand elephants that Andal pictures in her dreams, and more… The emotive songs sung by Vasudha, combined by poetic trans-creations of Priya Sarukkai Chabria completed the seasoned dancer’s performance of the season. 

And the season’s spell was finally shaped by Rama. She struck the right chord taking the dance festival to a crescendo. She justly showed the joys of being mad and divine and how! “Utto pandu ranga” – when the danseuse danced with childlike innocence and madness as she talked, chided and placated her lord, she became the saint Janabai. And in another “parama shivo tantara…” she becomes the mystic Lalleswari who shed shame, desire and the world itself…for she is now “jeevan mukta” or the liberated one - one with Siva! Every move, expression and stride of the dancer translated in complete transparency - the attitude and existence of these saint poetesses who shared the commonality of madness and yet were so different from one another. Draped in simple cotton Maharashtrian saree, Rama stepped into Janabai with lively Lavani like dance and even left the gods asking for more -when she gently asked Him to go back to the temple for she had nothing to offer him!! Clad in dull whites, Rama reappeared with her long tresses let loose… her dance conversed with the onlooker- the lore of Lalleswari of the hills and beyond to Siva, into the primordial sounds of conch… Om, as the goddess moved in her cosmic home. The soulful voice of Sudha Raghuraman and Vasudevan equally captured the pulse of the performance. A fitting finale of the three day conference. In seventh heaven!  

Power that makes the unknowable near and true… beckoned the unknown, and gave to it, a home.

The euphoria left by Rama Vaidyanathan who danced to “soulful Abhangs and thoughtful Vakhs” for the season’s theme of mystic saint poets, gave way to Anita Ratnam to ponder on the next year’s idea on “Epic women...”.

Like the return of a delightful rhyme…

Yes, the audiences were delighted to see the legendary Vyjayantimala Bali on stage, as she got decorated with the Kartik Fine Arts’ Lifetime Achievement Award 2011.  As part of the 3 day symposium, the audience also got a rare opportunity to witness the doyens of dance speak. Sudharani Ragupathi and C V Chandrasekhar shared their views on the celebrated artists of yore. And in an informal talk, Gowri Ramnarayan cast light on the soulful music of M S Subbalakshmi paralleling her devotion to that of mystic Meerabai. “Phagun ke din chaar”… “Jal bina kamal chaand bina rajani”… Meera did spring to life as the veteran danseuse Chitra Visweswaran gracefully stepped into her bhajans. When Chitra gestured to the cup of poison that Meera devoured…, I wondered at those wandering mystics who sojourned with ceaseless bliss… for pain, they never heed or knew…whose poetry, passion and perseverance continue to stir the seeker for generations now! And we know them for they could intersect their lives with the lives of gods!

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